We've long talked about the problems that come along with government mandating ISPs to act as copyright police by blocking so-called "pirate" websites. The issues with these attempts are many, ranging from their muted impact on piracy to concerns over just how a website is deemed to be a "pirate" website to the inevitable collateral damage sustained by non-infringing sites. With the last of those, you can pretty much set your watch to the stories of innocent sites being caught up in this sort of censorship. Still, the breadth of this particular problem likely escapes many people.
To get a handle on the sort of scope we're talking about, we can take a look at Russia. In response to international accusations of the government being lax on matters of copyright infringement, Russia enacted legislation in 2013 that tasked ISPs and hosting providers with blocking pirate websites. It's been nearly half a decade, so let's check in and see what sort of impact that legislation has had.
More than four years on, Russia is still grappling with a huge piracy problem that refuses to go away. It has been blocking thousands of sites at a steady rate, including RuTracker, the country's largest torrent platform, but still the problem persists.
Now, a new report produced by Roskomsvoboda, the Center for the Protection of Digital Rights, and the Pirate Party of Russia, reveals a system that has not only failed to reach its stated aims but is also having a negative effect on the broader Internet.
According to that study, the numbers come out to roughly 4,000 sites blocked that are the actual sort of website the Russian government meant to target and 41,000 sites that are essentially purely collateral damage. The reason for this is that the nature of the legal proceedings in these sorts of cases is such that the actual site operators basically never show up in court. Instead, the ISPs and hosting providers do, and are then ordered to block these pirate sites by IP addresses, among other methods. These IP addresses can be shared, however, meaning that any third party sharing an IP address with the target of a block order from the courts are caught up and likewise censored.
Due to the legal requirement to block sites by both IP address and other means, third-party sites with shared IP addresses get caught up as collateral damage. The report states that more than 41,000 innocent sites have been blocked as the result of supposedly targeted court orders.
But with collateral damage mounting, the main issue as far as copyright holders are concerned is whether piracy is decreasing as a result. The report draws few conclusions on that front but notes that blocks are a blunt instrument. While they may succeed in stopping some people from accessing ‘pirate’ domains, the underlying infringement carries on regardless.
“Blocks create restrictions only for Internet users who are denied access to sites, but do not lead to the removal of illegal information or prevent intellectual property violations,” the researchers add.
So, the blunt instrument of censorship has been fairly bad at stopping copyright infringement, it's stated goal, but quite good at censoring innocent sites at a factor of ten to one compared with the actual targets of the censoring. That's the kind of failure that's so bad it's impressive. One would think the Russian government would be looking to overhaul the legislation and censorship program to start driving these numbers back into the realm of reason. But this is Russia we're talking about, so instead the country is ramping up its censorship efforts, with requirements for search results to omit "pirate" sites and by criminalizing VPNs.
It's enough that you start to wonder just how many websites the average Russian citizen will be able to access at all before long.